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MSU still struggling to handle sexual misconduct caseload, law firm says

Six years after the Larry Nassar scandal, Michigan State University has made improvements in how it handles sexual misconduct cases but it still struggles to manage its caseload and finish investigations in a timely manner, according to outside investigators.

The university has one of the highest number of sexual misconduct reports in Michigan and several vacancies in the already understaffed office that is investigating and responding to the complaints, according to the law firm Cozen O'Connor, which reviewed complaints filed with the university's Office of Institutional Equity over three years. The office, which handles complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination, struggles with high staff turnover and burnout among employees, MSU Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum told The Detroit News last week.

The issues echo similar problems when MSU came under scrutiny after the crimes emerged in 2016 by the now-incarcerated Nassar, a former MSU physician who sexually assaulted female athletes for decades under the guise of medical care. Two presidents left the university amid the scandal and aftermath, former President Lou Anna Simon and interim President John Engler.

Now a third, President Samuel Stanley Jr., hired to heal the institution, is not expected to serve MSU beyond his contract that expires at the end of July 2024 due to concerns by some board members about the handling of sexual misconduct reports.

At least one expert said MSU needs to add a compliance office in-house, otherwise the university's culture around sexual misconduct is not going to change.

"MSU has not set up its Civil Rights and Title IX Education unit to succeed ...,” said Bradley Dizik of Guidepost Solutions, a firm that was hired in 2020 by the University of Michigan to assess and change its culture of sexual misconduct. "An independent ethics and compliance office helps ensure accountability."

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant noted the university has a compliance officer, Marilyn K. Tarrant, who is the associate vice president and chief audit, risk and compliance officer.

Tarrant wears too many hats, Dizik said, and the best practice is to make compliance separate from audit.

"The continued problems MSU experiences with sexual misconduct and relationship violence are empirical evidence of that," Dizik said.

Mixed reaction to Stanley's tenure

Stanley's future is still uncertain after several board members asked him to leave his position early, primarily because of state compliance issues related to Title IX. Stanley, 68, who was asked to deliver a response to the board by last week, has yet to say whether he will stay until his contract expires.

The MSU board members who want Stanley to depart early have said that position is related to questions the board has had for more than a year around Title IX and especially a certification the university must make annually to state budget officials that it has reviewed complaints linked to employees in an effort to avoid another predator like Nassar. The push is also linked to the resignation of Sanjay Gupta, dean of the MSU business school for 15 years, after he allegedly failed to report sexual misconduct he was aware of.

Byrum said last week the Title IX issue is broader than Stanley: The office is overwhelmed, understaffed and without a permanent director. It struggles to handle high turnover and staff burnout, as well as a lack of continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During Stanley's three-year tenure, there have been numerous steps taken to address sexual misconduct, including creating a crisis chat line for survivors and a free on-campus medical center for sexual assault victims, as well as making it possible to revoke tenure and honorary titles from faculty found to have committed misconduct.

"Since you stepped onto campus, you have told us that preventing sexual violence and supporting survivors would be your top priority," Louise Montag, a victim of Nassar's sexual abuse, wrote this week in a letter to Stanley. "You are making the correct steps to move the university forward."

Sexual misconduct at MSU

In 2021-22, there were 973 students, faculty and staff members who filed reports about sexual misconduct to MSU's Office of Institutional Equity, spokesman Dan Olsen said. That is a small fraction of the East Lansing school's fall 2021 enrollment, about 50,000 students, and 12,000 employees.

The number of MSU sexual misconduct complaints is nearly double those filed at the similarly sized University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. UM, which tracks complaints during the July 1-June 30 fiscal year period, did not have the most recent data available. But in the previous two previous fiscal years, UM had 530 reports in fiscal year 2021 and 499 reports in 2020, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.

Wayne State University, with a student enrollment of 24,931 — half of Michigan State's — tracks complaints by calendar year. The number of Title XI reports filed at the Detroit university was 95 in 2019, 53 in 2020 and 65 in 2021, spokesman Matt Lockwood said.

Byrum said MSU has a higher volume of reports than most other universities.

"A lot of that is because we put a lot of time and energy behind education and outreach, so we get a lot more reports because of that," she said.

Stanley and a member of the Board of Trustees must review all reports done about employees, Olsen said. It is also a requirement of the state budget office. In 2021-22, there were 44 total reports involving faculty or staff that needed to be reviewed. That doesn't necessarily mean that there were 44 separate cases involving staff, Olsen said, since "in any given case, you can have an investigative report, resolution officer report and equity review officer report." More than one board member typically reviews the employee-linked reports, which can range in length.

Some students, faculty and staff members have expressed concerns with how their reports of sexual misconduct are handled.

Christie Poitra, the former director of the Native American Institute, spent three years in limbo as she waited for investigators to determine if her boss, anthropology professor John Norder, would be found responsible for sexually harassing her and discriminating against her. 

OIE ultimately found that Norder sexually harassed and discriminated against Poitra, but the long drawn-out process caused Poitra a lot of stress. Poitra called it "one of the most traumatizing experiences in my adult life"

She ultimately filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging officials retaliated against her after she made the OIE report, though MSU contended Poitra did not suffer any negative employment action but instead received promotions.

"Roughly 1,500 days ago, my sexual harassment and discrimination was reported by a close colleague (who is also a Nassar survivor). As I continue to seek justice in federal court, not a day has gone by where I have not thought about the trauma and loss I have suffered at the hands of Michigan State University," Poitra said. 

Coming under federal oversight

Law firm Cozen O’Connor has been reviewing all Title IX cases investigated by the university since 2019, as was required by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. An agreement with OCR required MSU to hire a third party to review all of its Title IX cases for three academic years, from 2019-20 to 2021-22.

The last Cozen O’Connor review, which covered the spring 2022 semester, said while MSU was overall doing better at handling Title IX cases, there are still issues with timeliness, case oversight and keeping all parties in the loop. This is consistent with concerns in past reviews. 

Past reports also noted issues with staff burnout and a high turnover rate, as well as unexplained gaps in investigations with no activity and no communication with the parties.

“Given the size of the MSU population, the volume of reports received and the complexity of the issues MSU has navigated over the past several years, we encourage the University to continue to be mindful of the need to provide the Title IX Coordinator with the appropriate support, both in terms of resources and personnel, to be able to effectively tend to the myriad responsibilities under Title IX,” Cozen O’Connor attorney Maureen Holland wrote in the final review.

The Title IX office is being led by Grand River Solutions, an outside company that only serves MSU part-time. Former leader Tanya Jachimiak was removed as associate vice president in October 2021. The university recently launched a national search for a new leader, nearly a year after removing Jachimiak.

The oversight came after the OCR determined MSU had violated Title IX while handling investigations into Nassar and his supervisor, William Strampel, the then dean of Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine. Strampel was convicted of misconduct in office related to his treatment of women and neglect of duty for failing to supervise Nassar after a 2014 investigation into a sexual assault complaint.

MSU had already been under an agreement with the OCR from 2015 that required they review all Title IX complaints made since 2011. The university found 55 cases it had not responded to properly in January 2016. Within the next two years, the university amended that number to 64, which included a 2014 report about Nassar that was left out due to an “unfortunate oversight,” according to a letter from the OCR.